Spiritual Adventures in the Workplace

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Back to the Floor

Years ago I watched a PBS series called Back to the Floor, about CEOs who spent a week working in the trenches at their own company, seeing what day-to-day life is like for people at the bottom of the corporate chain. It was an interesting premise and I had high hopes for the series, but it didn’t play out quite the way I thought it would.

The episode that stands out most in my memory is the one about Wedgewood China. Brian Patterson, the CEO, comes across as a personable guy, willing to listen to his people and take their complaints seriously. But that’s the problem. He is so affected by what he hears that he personally intervenes and gets things done immediately for his workers. When he learns they’re being penalized for using absence time, he compels the Human Resources guy to rewrite the rules. He discovers faulty parts on the production line and motivates the supervisors to replace them. He tries to figure out why the new robotic machinery doesn’t work like it’s supposed to. From a Hollywood perspective that all sounds good, but from an educational perspective he has just flunked the course.

Here’s what he missed: in real-world workplaces, that’s not how things get done, nor can they get done that way on a regular basis. The modern workplace is a cooperative venture in which no one has the power to do it all—not even the CEO. That’s one of the most basic facts about the nature of work in this era. It’s a major source of our spiritual problems.  “If you want a job done right,” the old adage tells us, “you’ve gotta do it yourself.” But the modern workplace has no room for the do-it-yourself approach.

Take the CEO and the video cameras out of the picture and here’s what we’ve got.  We’ve got a factory full of disgruntled employees, and the Human Resources department is either unaware or unconcerned. Lots of people are failing to step forward and do what must be done. Workers on the floor should be taking their grievances to their supervisors and/or to their HR contacts, and those people should be listening. Discussions should lead to action plans or to negotiations. The rules should be rewritten, not because the CEO says so but because lots of people have worked together—even if they have yelled at each other at times—to bring about that result.

The same thing is true of the faulty parts out on the construction line. I cannot believe that the supervisors were unaware of the problem, nor should it have taken a CEO to get their attention. If they didn’t do anything about it on their own, I have to wonder why. Were their direct supervisors telling them the company couldn’t afford to replace outworn parts? Or was the replacement process so cumbersome that the supervisors simply had no power to obtain the parts? Somehow all these obstacles were overcome when the CEO and the documentary filmmakers arrived on the scene, and that means they could have been solved before.

This is happening every day in factories and offices all over the world: HR rules aren’t being rewritten and parts aren’t being replaced because at least some of the people in the chain of command are dragging their feet. Yes, it looks dramatic when a CEO steps in and applies pressure to get the job done, but that misses the point. The point is that we are highly dependent on one another in the modern workplace and nobody gets to be the hero. We each must do our own little part. If we don’t, we make our company a hell on earth for the others who work there. But if we do our part, it’s undramatic. There’s no thrill, no adventure, because our contribution is just a piece of the puzzle.

That’s a big part of our modern spiritual problem. Somehow we’ve got to recognize the adventure in the network of souls with whom we work instead of in our own individual achievements. We’ve got to get our thrills from being part of something bigger than ourselves. Authors and speakers in the field of workplace spirituality have offered a number of ways to accomplish this, but I’ve been urging you to think about it theistically. “What is God doing in our workplace?” I’ve been asking. And I can tell you this much: whatever God is doing, it involves all of us. If we could catch a glimpse of divine activity in our factory or office complex, it wouldn’t be focused on a single heroic personality but on all the people who work there—even the slackers.

We don’t need a CEO “back on the floor.” We need eyes to see what God is already doing there, right now. And we need the will to play our own part boldly.


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2 thoughts on “Back to the Floor

  1. Ron,

    I think that’s so very important. In the spiritual life, there just aren’t any lone rangers. Learning our interdependence is a great step forward.

    God’s blessings,

    Br. James

  2. I agree, Brother James. And yet it seems so hard for us to accept!


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